Silver Spring Shifts Focus From Open Lot to Plaza

By Mariana Minaya
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

The open space covered by artificial turf in downtown Silver Spring will soon become an urban plaza inspired by some of the country's most vibrant town centers.

Montgomery County's planners hope to create an area reminiscent of Union Square in San Francisco or Rockefeller Center in New York on about 1.5 acres. The town square will be a versatile space, offering various kinds of recreation, including concerts, ice skating and farmers markets.

"It should be a people's place -- very active, very energized," said Hamid Omidvar, design section chief in the county's Department of Public Works and Transportation.

With the Planning Board's unanimous vote of approval last week, the county's last hurdles to construction were cleared. The county-funded project will be put out to bid, and construction of the $22 million complex, which will include a civic building, veterans memorial and skating rink, is expected to begin this fall.

"Each community needs to have a large open gathering space, especially when it is so energized with all those stores," said Omidvar, referring to restaurants and businesses that have opened in downtown Silver Spring.

Officials describe the planned town square as a key part of the downtown revitalization effort. They say the combination of an outdoor plaza, skating rink and civic building will be unlike any project in other county town centers.

"This is pretty unique," Omidvar said.

For the past two years, artificial turf has covered the site of a former parking garage at Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive. The area has become an attractive spot for families and teenagers to picnic, play games or people-watch.

Some residents testifying before the Planning Board last week worried that such a simple, popular outdoor space would be hard to replace. Richard Jaeggi, a vocal opponent of eliminating the green space, said he is resigned to "celebrate the turf in its declining days."

Jaeggi, of Silver Spring, intends to "be there with the turf until the very end and let it go," he said. "I don't really have a whole lot of faith that some appeal by a small group is going to change that." No community group has indicated that it will challenge the Planning Board's decision.

The county's plans promise a wider array of recreation and entertainment opportunities than the turf can provide, and a plaza could be just as casual and friendly a space in which to hang out, county officials said.

"Many of the informal uses may still be able to operate there," said Royce Hanson, chairman of the Planning Board.

The project's centerpiece will be a 2 1/2 -story civic building housing community and government offices, such as the Silver Spring Regional Center, which links residents to county services and promotes area development. It also will include a great hall for meetings and performances, classrooms, a theater, an indoor exhibit area and a courtyard.

A portico will connect the civic building to a paved plaza that will surround the ice rink and be furnished with movable tables and chairs. For performances, the plaza would be cleared of furniture to make room for large crowds. On one side of it, officials will put a memorial with three murals made of carved glass and bronze, depicting veterans.

The design incorporates grass and trees on the periphery as well. Although some had hoped the plaza would include more green space, Hanson said the Planning Board found more greenery would not be feasible.

"Some of us on the board were disappointed that there was not more green area in the project, but it's a relatively small space and it will be intensely used, and that makes it extremely difficult to maintain natural turf," he said.

Another benefit of the project's design is that the 6,000-square-foot rink will attract visitors during the winter, when a park may not be as attractive, Hanson said.

When it is completed, Omidvar added, the town square is likely to become a popular gathering place.

People "want to hang out -- turf or no turf,'' he said.

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